Frozen body parts, a milquetoast husband and his shrewish wife, and the serene scenery of Lijiang blend to sharp, entertaining effect in black comedy “The Case,” an impressive first feature by actress-turned-director Wang Fen. Another in the increasing number of pics shot in and supported by southern China’s Yunnan province, this potentially has fest legs and some kind of shot at limited offshore distribution if buyers could look beyond their traditional shopping list of Mainland fare.
Legit actor Wu Gang — so good as the nervous party secretary in “Trouble Makers,” another Yunnan-set black comedy — plays He Dashang, who with his nagging, dumpy wife (Wu Yujuan) runs a riverside guesthouse in the well-known tourist spot. One morning, he wakes to find a suitcase floating by; inside, to his surprise, are chopped-up, frozen body parts.
Hearing from his brother-in-law (Tang Wei), the local police chief, that something serious has happened in town, Dashang hides the frozen body parts in his greenhouse. Just then, two suspicious looking guests arrive — a guy who supposedly has car sickness (Wang Hongwei) and his glamorous but snooty wife (Wang Sifei).
What develops is a black farce that could have been played all-stops-out but is very low-key, as Dashang gets to know the mysterious glamorpuss in stolen moments, and there’s still the unresolved questions of whose body is in the greenhouse and who did the chopping up.
Script skillfully juggles the component elements, with surprise developments like a shock inspection of the guesthouse by local authorities and then the sudden disappearance of the frozen parts. Forever evading his suspicious wife’s gaze, Dashang finds himself drawn into a drama that progressively turns into a comic nightmare.
As one mishap leads to another, the script has the same relentless logic as the 2002 Taiwanese black comedy “The Rule of the Game,” though this is much more tightly written and on a much smaller, domestic stage. Pic also has some nice moments of repose, as when Dashang and the mystery woman briefly share dreams of escape or when Dashang quietly steals away from his wife for some quality time on his own.
Twist ending is not especially original, but wraps the movie in a satisfyingly upbeat way.
Perfs by the small cast are all on the money, led by Wu Gang’s marvelous portrait of the henpecked but wily Dashang and Wu Yujuan’s equally skilful playing of the emotionally needy, basically caring wife. D.p. Zhang Huajie, who also cops a credit as executive director, wraps things in precision lensing that’s tightly cut by Zhou Xinxia. Occasional jolting inserts of dark, grubby shots don’t add much, and Xiao He’s briefly wacky score also seems out of place.